Environment

Scientists record coldest temperature ever seen on Earth's surface

Scientists record coldest temp...
Researchers have pinpointed parts of the East Antarctic Plateau as the coldest place on Earth
Researchers have pinpointed parts of the East Antarctic Plateau as the coldest place on Earth
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Using satellite data, researchers have isolated coldspots on the East Antarctic Plateau that drop to -98° C (-144° F)
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Using satellite data, researchers have isolated coldspots on the East Antarctic Plateau that drop to -98° C (-144° F)
The satellite data was taken during the Antarctic winter, during the extended darkness of polar night
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The satellite data was taken during the Antarctic winter, during the extended darkness of polar night
The East Antarctic Plateau is a huge, empty expanse the size of Australia that sits 3,500 m (11,500 ft) above sea level
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The East Antarctic Plateau is a huge, empty expanse the size of Australia that sits 3,500 m (11,500 ft) above sea level
The coldest spots form when old, dense pockets of air are able to sit inside shallow dips in the ice sheet, and remain there for several days
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The coldest spots form when old, dense pockets of air are able to sit inside shallow dips in the ice sheet, and remain there for several days
Researchers have pinpointed parts of the East Antarctic Plateau as the coldest place on Earth
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Researchers have pinpointed parts of the East Antarctic Plateau as the coldest place on Earth

To say "Antarctica is cold" will surprise nobody, but just how cold it can get might. Researchers from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado Boulder have now identified the coldest places on the planet, where the mercury plummets to almost -100° C (-148° F) under specific conditions.

The area in question is the East Antarctic Plateau, a huge, empty expanse the size of Australia that starts right near the South Pole. Sitting some 3,500 m (11,500 ft) above sea level, the air over the Plateau is extremely still, dry and thin, and while that makes it a perfect spot for future observatories, it also helps it rank among the chilliest places on Earth.

In 1983, a Russian weather station measured a record-low air temperature of -89° C (-128° F) there, and in 2013 satellite data revealed certain pockets could get as cold as -93° C (-135° F). For the new study, the team behind the latter project set out to check if it gets even colder.

To do so, they analyzed data from NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites, as well as the NOAA's Polar Operational Environmental Satellites, gathered during the Antarctic winters between 2004 and 2016. In this data, the team found that snow surface temperatures below -90° C (-130° F) were a regular winter occurrence across the Plateau, while almost 100 spots bottomed out at -98° C (-144° F).

Using satellite data, researchers have isolated coldspots on the East Antarctic Plateau that drop to -98° C (-144° F)
Using satellite data, researchers have isolated coldspots on the East Antarctic Plateau that drop to -98° C (-144° F)

Interestingly, these locations are spread out over hundreds of kilometers but all have the same lowest temperature. According to the team, all of the cold spots are found in shallow dips in the ice sheet, where in still weather the colder, denser air can drop and sit for days at a time. The longer it's there, the colder the air and the surface snow gets, until the wind picks up again and disturbs it.

"In this area, we see periods of incredibly dry air, and this allows the heat from the snow surface to radiate into space more easily," says Ted Scambos, lead author of the study.

The absolute coldest temperatures were found in those pockets of air that sat still for several days, and the team says that for the mercury to drop much further those conditions would need to remain still for a few weeks at a time. Since that's unlikely, the team says this temperature might just be the coldest it could possibly get anywhere on the Earth's surface.

The satellite data was taken during the Antarctic winter, during the extended darkness of polar night
The satellite data was taken during the Antarctic winter, during the extended darkness of polar night

It's worth keeping in mind that the satellite data is measuring the snow surface temperatures. To measure the air temperature requires a ground-based weather station, but using the data on hand the team estimated that the air above those coldest pockets would be around -94° C (-137° F). To get a more accurate reading, the researchers plan to visit some of the sites in the next few years (during summer, of course) and deploy instruments.

The research was published in the journal Geophysical Review Letters.

Source: NSIDC

9 comments
mirre
What about CO2? At those temperatures atmospheric CO2 should freeze and become solid
Kaido Tiigisoon
There should not only be CO2 snow there, but also Nitrous oxide snow NOS is present in air in minute amounts as well (0.5 ppm).
MD
Either Dry Ice. or the CO2 Apocalypse hasn't reached these parts.... If so winter in the Antarctic is carbon negative.... (just not the human habitats there.)
Bob
If those readings are from IR detectors on the satellites, they are notoriously inaccurate depending on the reflectivity of the surface being measured. Is the surface water ice or dry ice or both?
VincentWolf
They should measure the percentage of dry ice INSIDE the snow pack down to a depth of several hundred feet. If those cold temperatures were routinely forcing dry ice to form then the Antarctic has been storing huge quantities and if global temperatures rise enough such that the area never gets below minus 110 farenheit--then that dry ice could end up subliming right into the atmosphere and dramatically increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and create a global nightmare of ever increasing temperatures such that all the ice globally melted and seas rose over 220 feet.
b@man
VincentWolf that is why co2 concentration follows warming by about 800 years.
physics314
While it is correct that these temperatures are below the CO2 sublimation point, the vapor pressure of the solid is still too high for accumulation, given the atmospheric CO2 partial pressure of only 40 Pa (20 Pa at this altitude). To form solid CO2 at these temperatures, one would need a sealed container, with a pure CO2 atmosphere at nearly atmospheric pressure.
ljaques
During the horrible and ongoing crisis they call Global Warming, er, Climate Change, er, Tipping Point, the scientists find -100C temps at the poles. AGWK kills, folks! Vincent's right, wereallgonnadie.
RobertTaylor
@VincentWolf it's OK buddy, don't worry, be happy :)